George Freeman responds to motorway safety debate

22nd January 2020

George Freeman responds on behalf of the Roads Minister to a debate on all-lane running motorways.

George Freeman speaking in Westminster Hall, Jan 2020, Smart Motorways

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Paisley. I am standing in for the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, who will be watching the debate closely, and I will meet her afterwards. Let me congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for raising this issue. I agree that it merits a bigger debate. The participation of colleagues across the House signals the strength of feeling.

Let me start by acknowledging the tragedy, pain and trauma suffered by the families of all those who have lost their lives on our roads—especially Jason Mercer, whose family are in the Gallery, and Dev Naran—and particularly, in the context of this debate, on our smart motorways. It is no good Ministers saying that all roads are safe; people need to feel safe and be safe. We need to ensure that safety remains our No. 1 priority. We accept there is a problem here. The Secretary of State is, as we speak, putting the finishing touches on a serious package of measures to tackle it. I cannot and will not pre-empt that, but I will deal with a number of points that were raised.

I would not be doing my job if I did not start by reminding everyone that safety is our No. 1 priority. Highways England’s objective in implementing smart motorways is to ensure that they are as safe as the pre-smart motorway network, which is already the safest bit of the road network, and ultimately safer. We are committed to developing an increasingly safe road network, and I am alarmed that the safety statistics showed a slight increase last year. I take the point my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made about drilling down into that data, which I will raise with Baroness Vere.

What the Minister has said is interesting, but given all he has heard, does he accept that smart motorways, or all-lane running—whichever he wants to call it—are as safe as building an extra lane and having a permanent hard shoulder?

That is one of the precise questions that the Secretary of State is looking at. I do not want to pre-empt that work, but I absolutely accept the hon. Gentleman’s reason for asking that important question.

Highways England is constantly monitoring, and it has introduced a number of measures. This is ongoing work. It is not something we think is done and dusted; it is live as we speak. The truth is that, for anyone involved, one accident is one too many. I want to ensure that no one ever dies in this way again, and that the legacy of the people who have died is that that sort of accident, and the situation in which it occurred, cannot happen again. That is why the Secretary of State announced an evidence stocktake soon after taking office. He has called in all the evidence and data, and he is looking at a package of measures to deal with this issue, which will be announced imminently. It would be sensible if, following the debate, we quickly reconvened the all-party group on road safety. Perhaps we might go further and create a taskforce for all colleagues who are interested in this issue, so we can listen to their concerns and ensure that that work is fed directly in.

I hope my hon. Friends and colleagues on the Opposition Benches understand that I cannot pre-empt the Secretary of State’s announcement, but let me make one or two key points in response to those that were raised. It is true that the principal rationale for smart motorways is to increase capacity, reduce congestion and reduce pollution. There are environmental benefits to ensuring that we maximise the use of existing motorways rather than building new motorway capacity, but there are real issues about awareness, information, the positioning of refuges, rescue, vehicle monitoring, and the safety of vehicles re-entering the highway. All those issues have to be got right, and that is why I am responding in the way I am.

Smart motorways have increased capacity. Since we introduced the scheme, more than 1 billion journeys have been made over the 250-mile network of smart motorways. I do not want people to think this is a very small patch of malfunctioning motorway; it is extensive, and over the last 15 years, millions of people have driven up smart motorways.

This debate is about all-lane running, not smart motorways. It actually is about a very small stretch. Please, Minister, do not just focus on smart motorways and how wonderful the M25 is. We get that. We are talking about all-lane running, which is where we do not have investment.

I understand. I am setting the context, because I think there is quite a lot of public misunderstanding about what smart motorways are. I am short of time and I am keen to get to the end of my speech if I can.

The conversion of the hard shoulder to a running lane is a key feature of capacity management, and we avoid having to build more motorways when we can increase the capacity of existing ones. I totally accept that there are real issues, which the hon. Lady raised, not least of which are refuge placement and ensuring that we have full CCTV coverage so we are able properly and quickly to monitor vehicles that are in trouble and ensure that they are dealt with properly. The scheme has been running since 2014. To the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, there is a lot of data that we ought to be able to draw on, and we are drawing on it in this review.

It is worth reflecting that the hard shoulder on a traditional motorway has never been deemed a safe place to stop. One of the problems is that, traditionally, people have seen the rescue telephones and thought of it as a safe place to stop, find facilities and make a phone call. It is not and never has been. One of the things we have struck is a misunderstanding that it is a good place to pull over. It is not. Let me repeat that the hard lane has never been that and is never that. In contrast, there have been no collisions in refuges resulting in fatalities.

In the original pilot on the M42 in 2006, refuges were set very close together, at approximately 500 metres apart. Based on operational insights, further performance data and ongoing monitoring, Highways England moved that to 1,000 metres on all other dynamic hard shoulder running schemes, and then to 2,500 metres on all-lane running schemes. That is one of the things the Secretary of State is looking at.

Highways England undertook a review of operational all-lane running schemes and found no consistent correlation between the number of live-lane stops and the spacing of emergency areas, but I take the point my hon. Friend made about drilling down into that data, and I will ensure that that is done. We and Highways England know that motorists not only need to be safe but need to feel safe and need to know what to do when they are in the dangerous situation of a breakdown or a collision. We need to ensure that everyone has that information properly.

The specification for the maximum spacing of emergency areas on new schemes has been reduced from 1.5 miles, which is about 90 seconds at 60 mph and equivalent to the spacing of lay-bys on sections of A road, to 1 mile, which is about 60 seconds at 60 mph. However, again, we need to look at the data; on particular sections, given the geography of the road area, the spacing might need to be different. Highways England will also install a number of additional emergency refuge areas in locations with the greatest spacing. We need to look at whether there are particular blackspots where we need more refuges.

All emergency areas are fitted with orange surfacing to make them more visible, and better advance signing will give motorists more information about how far away the next one is. I want to go further and ask whether we could use digital technology, which many drivers use for satellite navigation, to ensure that every driver knows when they are in one of these areas, where the refuge is and what they should do. Technology can help us ensure that we avoid the sort of tragedies we have seen.

Identifying a broken-down vehicle is key, and I know that is something my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has raised. If a driver is unable to reach a place of safety, the regional traffic control centre can and should use the overhead electronic signals to close lanes, display warning messages and slow down approaching traffic, as well as to create an access lane for the emergency services. To reduce response times in setting those signals, Highways England has installed a stopped vehicle detection system on two sections of the M25 and will shortly install one on part of the M3. Again, however, if that is the prerequisite, we need to put it everywhere and ensure that it works properly. Highways England is designing it into all-lane running smart motorway schemes that are currently scheduled, and it is exploring how to provide the same benefits on all existing all-lane running smart motorways. I say that not to suggest that it is an adequate response to the points that were made, but simply to highlight the work that is going on.

The Minister will know that when Highways England appeared at the Transport Committee, it confirmed that stopped vehicle detection systems are only 90% effective. What is in place to deal with the other 10%?

That is an excellent point, and it is one of the issues the Secretary of State will be looking at in his work.

In the remaining seconds, I want to touch on reports that the AA has said it will not let its patrols stop in live lanes. That is concerning, because we need the support of all vehicle rescue operators. It is worth saying they are never expected to work in a live lane on any motorway unless the scene has been made safe by police officers. That has always been the situation. Highways England has developed guidance on safe recovery with the recovery industry, and it has put in place a whole series of measures, such as electronic signs, variable speed limits and red X signals. Regional control centres and on-road traffic officers can now support vehicles leaving an emergency area. Again, I am not suggesting that is adequate; more needs to be done to ensure that this is working properly.

Red X lane enforcement is long standing. It has been in use since the system was introduced in 2006, and Highways England, in partnership with the police, has issued more than 180,000 formal warning letters to drivers identified as having wrongly used the hard shoulder at a number of smart motorway locations. That number must come down. The aim should be to ensure that nobody drives in the wrong lane at the wrong time, rather than to issue letters to warn them. We need faster progress on that. We have brought in legislation to allow automated detection of red X offences using camera equipment and to enable the police to prosecute, but, again, that should be the last line and something we hope never to have to do. We need to ensure that those incidents do not happen. There have been major public information campaigns, which I do not have time to list in detail.

Let me conclude by saying, in the spirit of the debate, that I am keen to work with the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, to follow up with colleagues on both sides of the House and look at whether we might set up a taskforce to ensure that their insights can be fed in, and to work with the Secretary of State to ensure that the package he announces is adequate for all of us who use the motorways and represent drivers. I want to ensure that the deaths of Jason, Dev and the others were not in vain, and that their legacy is real improvement so everyone knows these routes are safe.

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